[4 January 2009]
Album covers can do more for an artist than one might think. The artwork can draw in a listener who is simply skimming through disc after disc at a music store. It can also indicate what kind of music might be pressed onto the CD. For K-the-I???’s Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, the latter scenario rings true. The cover is simple: a profile shot of the emcee/spoken-word poet against a clean white background. He is wearing a black T-shirt, and he holds a megaphone in his right hand. Clearly this artist is dying to be heard. But superficial qualities aside, it becomes apparent as the album plays that the megaphone isn’t actually there. K’s voice is so boisterous, gripping, and demanding that, though this is a stretch, it seems like the object in his hand is a mere representation of his vocal cords and the sounds they produce.
K wisely kept most of the tracks on Yesterday under the three-minute mark. Had he reached for greater lengths, there would have been an even greater possibility that listeners would tire of his sometimes overbearing and brash delivery, though those same qualities are what keep your ear glued to the speaker. Think of K as a less-emcee-friendly version of El-P with hints of Saul Williams thrown in. And that second comparison carries more weight than you might think—producer Thavius Beck worked with Williams on The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!.
On the mic, K is strong, but there are times when he doesn’t captivate you with anything outside of his delivery. His lyrics tend to remain in a stream-of-consciousness style that, unless he tells a captivating story, fails to truly hold your attention. For example, tracks like “Decisions” and “Before the Session” are particularly rich and hold weight because K, though he touches on numerous topics, remains focused. And when he tells a story, forget about it. On “Just Listen”, the album’s second-longest cut, K chronicles a relationship and throws in some braggadocio to create one of his best tunes. Equally impressive is the longest track, “Man or Machine”. The emcee and his guest, Mestizo, provide some clever insights into how our world is becoming increasingly streamlined and taken over by machines.
Other joints, which have K simply spitting what some would deem “nonsense”, flirt with weighing down an otherwise fine album. But luckily for him, he has Thavius Beck on his side to help tip the scale back in his favor. And, to be honest, Beck is the true star of this record. His production is innovative, apocalyptic, on-point, and absolutely ready to be bumped in your car. “Before the Session” is an erratic, Nine Inch Nails-ish track that has its drums fighting a battle against the wall of sound created by haunted mansion synths. The handclap-driven beat on “Trading Places” comes off as lazy until the synths float in over what sounds like a twisted vocal sample. On the opening “400 on the BPM”, the producer crafts what sounds like a horror movie as thunderous drums bang, slam, and crash behind growls and screams—it’s like Terminator meets Halloweeen. Speaking of Arnold, Beck gets his Total Recall on for “Let’s Make Moves”. The track’s heavy drums are paired with sci-fi guitars and keyboards for a beat right out of the aforementioned film. Not to belabor the point, but Beck also brings the heat on “Just Listen”, a track that combines the frigid feel of El-P with MF DOOM’s whacked-out sampling.
As the previous paragraph indicates, you can grant K some amnesty for not grabbing the spotlight. Beck’s productions would most likely drown out even some of the best emcees. But K isn’t your typical rapper, by any means. And, even if he tends to get lost and off-track, his spoken-word delivery suits Beck’s end-of-the-world backdrops. All criticisms aside, as a listener, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow truly delivers. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for a neck brace by the third track. Also, props to Mush for putting out yet another top-notch album in 2008.